My southern credentials are unimpeachable. Every male ancestor of fighting age served the Confederacy during the Civil War and my father was a former Klansman. My great grandfather, Capt. Isham B. Small, 48th Alabama Infantry, whose family owned 15 slaves, gave his life for the Confederacy in 1864. But even during my formative years I had doubts about what I was told justifying the Southern cause.
I was cautioned by a third cousin, an unreconstructed Rebel, to disregard anything I was taught in school about Abraham Lincoln. He said Lincoln was a scoundrel and actually the illegitimate son of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. After impregnating Nancy Hanks, Calhoun supposedly paid “Old Tom Lincoln” to marry her and take her over the mountains to Kentucky.
I was also indoctrinated with the “real story” behind President Franklin Roosevelt’s physical disabilities. They said he really didn’t have polio but was crippled by syphilis which he contracted from his wife Eleanor. She reportedly caught it from some of her African American boyfriends. Of course they didn’t use “African American.”
Outlandish as those tales might seem, they were passed on as historical fact by the same culture that today flies the Rebel flag from their pickup trucks. This is not, incidentally, the Confederate flag, the “Stars and Bars,” but the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Reared in the Deep South, I rarely saw this flag displayed until it became a symbol of defiance to the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation. A banner of southern honor? What was honorable about slavery and Jim Crow?
Latter day Confederates still entertain the myth that the South was defending states’ rights, not slavery. But I invite them to Google up Georgia’s 1861 Secession Declaration and find much there about states’ rights. It was all about slavery.
In an 1863 speech the Confederate vice president, Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, declared slavery to be “the very cornerstone of our republic . . . the immediate cause of the late rupture and present insurrection.” One finds little inference of states’ rights here.
In speaking to slavery, Thomas Jefferson, our third president and a slave owner himself, wrote “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.” It is ironic that men like Jefferson and Washington, believing full well that slavery was wrong, continued to own slaves. But Washington did free his slaves in his will.
Today’s Confederate apologists need to face reality. Rhett Butler knew what he was talking about at the Wilkes barbecue when he told the local gentry that rebellion against the Union was futile. The North had more people, wealth, technology, manufacturing, education and common sense. The South’s defeat was inevitable.
By the 1850s slavery had been outlawed in most of the civilized western world. It would have been a human tragedy and a great leap backward if the South had won the Civil War.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.